30 May, 2024


What Is A Nation? How Different Is It From Nation-State?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

In a recent article by Dayan Jayatilleka (Colombo Telegraph, March 3 2015) has stated that Tamils in Sri Lanka are an ethnic minority but not a nation. However, Sinhalese are a nation within the broader Sri Lankan nation. The basis for his argument is that the Sinhalese are the majority in demographic terms whereas the Tamils are a numerical minority. In essence, he is using the demographic factor to define a nation. This is not only quite misleading but also goes against the developments in the international law, minority rights, UN deliberations in regard to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities around the world during the last few decades. I believe the confusion here can be partly eliminated by employing the distinction between a nation-state and a nation.

Jayatilleka further states that ‘One may well ask, “what is wrong in the claim of Tamil nationhood?” Probably nothing, except for the fact that the claim is made here in Sri Lanka. The Tamils may or may not be a nation, but if they are, it would be in Tamil Nadu, not in Sri Lanka’ (CT March 3, 2015). This is a quite interesting but also a concerning argument coming from a political scientist of repute who should know that this is not a feasible option for Sri Lankan Tamils.   Sri Lankan Tamils, though having close cultural and ethnic relations with those in Tamil Nadu, are for all intents and purposes citizens of Sri Lanka –Not Tamil Nadu. If they are seeking nation status within the Sri Lankan nation-state, then their claim should be assessed on its own merit.

Jayatilleka seems to recognize that there is a broader, emergent nation called Sri Lankan nation but his criteria applies only to the Sinhalese –not the Tamils who he considers as ‘ethnic or national minority’ (CT March 3 2015). This is a highly discriminatory criteria to use in this day and age when the discourses about nation-state vs. nation have progressed so much to the extent that there is absolutely no place for this sort of misleading and biased criteria in the broader community of international scholarship or in the international law field.

The article by Jayatilleka raises several pertinent questions also. Firstly, is the use of demographic factor to define a nation widely accepted in international law, political and social sciences, by governments and by those ethnic and indigenous minorities seeking nation status around the world? In other words, where does this idea derive its authenticity or legitimacy perhaps other than in his own imagination? Secondly, using this definition how many other majorities in various countries could be considered as nations? For example, are Brahmin Hindus in India a nation but the Tamils in Tamil Nadu or other linguistic minorities not a nation? Thirdly, are there characteristics of a nation other than the demographic factor? Fourthly, is it possible to define a nation in Sri Lanka purely by what the Sinhala and Tamil political leaders have said in the past without giving due regard to the developments in the global context, in particular within the UN and its agencies plus in international law? Fifthly, is it possible to discard two-nation theory merely because it has ‘become a dirty word in neighbouring India’ (Colombo Telegraph, March 3, 2015)? Sixthly, do ethnic and indigenous minorities with historical, cultural, and territorial connection to a given land have the right to seek nation status within a nation-state even though the governments in the nation-states may reject such rights?

A cursory glance at any reputed dictionary shows that the definition of a nation varies considerably from the demographic definition used by Jayatilleka. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines nation as ‘a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory’. The Free Dictionary gives several meanings to nation: 

1) a. A relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government; a country. b. The territory occupied by such a group of people.

2). The government of a sovereign state.

3). A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality. It also defines Native Americans as a nation (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/nation).

The Collins dictionary defines nation as 1. An aggregation of people or peoples of one or more cultures, races, etc, organized into a single state   ⇒ “the Australian nation”. 2. A community of persons not constituting a state but bound by common descent, language, history, etc   ⇒ “the French-Canadian nation” 3. A federation of tribes, esp American Indians, b. the territory occupied by such a federation.

These definitions in widely used dictionaries highlight the difference between nation-state that is a political entity with international recognition and those tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities as well as indigenous peoples who are seeking nation status within a nation-state. Yet Jayatilleka’s criterion for defining a nation gloss over this distinction seemingly to proclaim Tamils in Sri Lanka are not a nation but the Sinhalese are? This is the same argument that ultra Sinhalese nationalists including governments of the day during the 30 year war used to deny the Tamils certain rights on the basis of their historical, cultural, linguistic commonality. One must acknowledge that this claim to nation status was diluted in the concerted attempt by the LTTE to claim a separate state in the northern and eastern provinces through an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan nation-state. Yet in this post-war era, we have to be open to developments and models available in the global context that guarantees certain group rights for ethnic and indigenous minorities. In particular, one has to examine the concept of nation these minorities utilize as their flag post to seek equal rights, non-discrimination, self-determination and legitimacy.

There is a plethora of literature available on how the nations and nation states emerged in Europe. Interested readers can access this vast literature on the subject. However, if we focus on how the nation-state concept emerged through the UN in the aftermath of the decolonisation and emergence of independent states, it is highly informative. It is also highly informative to look at Covenants such as the Civil and Political Rights where the concept of ‘peoples’ is used. The United National Declarations and Covenants are important instruments that define the status of ‘peoples’ while providing legal definitions of rights and responsibilities applicable to international law. UN Declaration of Human Rights is another key document. Depending on how states define who the ‘people’ are, the consequences on the rights of Ethnic Nations can differ. Norwegian government has allowed certain rights for the Sami people including a parliament in areas where they inhabit providing a degree of self-rule.

In countries like Canada, there were many Indian nations inhabiting the country prior to the arrival of the Europeans. ‘By the time the European explorers arrived in Canada, the boundaries marking each Nation’s territories had been in the process of definition for thousands of years. Within their territory, each nation evolved with its own language, laws, history and spiritual practices’ (Mandel, L 1986: 102). This article examines the way these Nations were delegitimised and Indians were dispossessed by the European/British settlement starting from the 14th century. There are similar accounts of over 200 Nations existing in Australia among the Aborigines before the British settlement. These are referred to as First Nations. Examples abound from various parts of the world about First nations in many countries subsumed under nation-States. The struggles of these First Nations are to be recognised as original inhabitants of their lands by the respective governments –not simply as ethnic minorities. In Sri Lanka’s case, Veddas occupy a similar status to the First Nation concept. Whether Sri Lankan Tamils qualify to be a First nation is questionable because they are not considered, according to historical records, as the first inhabitants of the country or northern and eastern provinces. Nonetheless, their long history of living in a certain part of the country preserving linguistic, cultural and ethnic features distinct from the majority Sinhalese deserve to be adequately considered along with the developments that have taken place in world fora and in international law pertaining to the definition of ‘Peoples’, ‘Nations’etc. in comparison to the rights of nation-states. Though the world is governed by nation-states, which exercise self-determination, sovereignty etc. it does not mean minority groups or ethnic nations cannot seek their legitimate rights within such states.

The main claims and demands by First nations are for self-determination. It includes self-government, autonomy, territorial integrity and exclusive enjoyment of their lands and resources. Universal Declaration of Indigenous People’s Rights adopted by the UN is a significant milestone in the struggle of indigenous peoples seeking equality, self-determination and other rights. It has been ratified by many governments by now.

Australian Aborigines are seeking First Nation status within the Australian nation-state. Their campaign is linked to the worldwide campaign by indigenous peoples.

One notable factor in regard to the Tamils in Sri Lanka in comparison to Canadian Indians or Australian Aborigines is the absence of a clear-cut assimilation policy adopted by governments led by the Sinhalese majority.

Nations Within States and Stateless Nations

According to Wegnar (2008),

The possibility of legitimating various forms of political autonomy is not necessarily uniquely limited to indigenous peoples. Examples can be found from around the world where other types of national minorities also have long lasting historical connections to specific parts of a state’s territory, which may very well give them a justifiable claim for political autonomy.

The Nation concept has been enlarged in the last few decades to not only includes indigenous peoples but also to include distinctive peoples within states and Stateless nations, e.g. Tibetans. Within states there are groupings or communities –though minority compared to the majority- claiming specific group rights like self-determination rights rather than individual rights offered by liberal democracies. A key feature in the contemporary political and legal discourses on the subject is if they are treated by the states and/or the majorities as ethnic minorities they forego their group rights.

Some use the concept of national minorities to differentiate specific groups from ethnic minorities. ‘For example Kymlicka (1995:27) argues that national minorities have a right to autonomy; that is, they have a right, as far as possible, to keep their traditional social institutions intact and to govern themselves. Ethnic groups, on the other hand, cannot claim a right to..political autonomy’ (Weigard 2008:181-182).

The fact that states and majorities in certain states resist claims of self-determination by Peoples/Nations within states or stateless Peoples/Nations does not mean that their agitations and campaigns are invalid or less significant. It is a continuing struggle between peoples or nations as defined by these groupings and the states and majorities holding political power. Whether a claim by a given national minority or a Nation is justifiable depends on a range of contextually specific factors. However, universal norms are being developed by member states of the UN to address situations like this specifically to do with indigenous peoples and to a lessor extent national minorities claiming equality and self-determination. The self-determination claims by such nations and/or national minorities are mostly for ‘internal self determination’ (without separation from the state) rather than ‘external’. However, as can be seen frequently in the Sri Lankan political discourse pertaining to this matter, the two are mixed and presented as if they are one and the same. This can have serious consequences for reconciliation and coexistence.

The question of nationalisms also arises from the majority and national minority political behaviour. According to Craigie (2010),

Majority nationalism is especially dangerous for political state-wide cohesion if the minority group begins to feel that a) their way of seeing things is different from the majority, b) that this is generally not understood or recognized by the majority, and c) the majority is not willing to alter forms of debate to accommodate this difference and the minority is being systematically unheard, its voice unable to penetrate public debate (Taylor 1998: 204).



Craigie, A. 2010. “Unionism and Pan-Nationalism: Exploring the Dialectical Relationship between Minority and Majority Sub-State Nationalism”, in André Lecours and Luis Moreno, Nationalism and Democracy: Dichotomies, Complementarities, Opposition.  Routledge studies in Nationalism and Ethnicity

Mandell, L 1986. Indian Nations: Not Minorities, Les Cahiers de Droit, Vol.27, No. 1, March, pp. 101-121. (Accessed on 06.03.2015).

Taylor, Charles 1998. “Nationalism and Modernity” in John A. Hall (ed) Ernest Gellner and the theory of Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Weigard, J. 2008. Book Chapter, in Minde, H et al(ed) Indigenous Peoples: Self-determination, Knowledge Indigeneity, Eburon Delft, Netherlands.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    My question to those people who call for a Separate Nation, is to ask whether they seek a separate State or Nation when they migrate to another Country?

    For example, do the Tamils settled in Wellawatte ask for a separate State in the South, or are they willing to return to the Separate State created for them in the North and East of Sri Lanka, courtesy of the sympathisers of the LTTE?

    • 11

      No Tamil asked for a separate state in 1948 when the country got free from colonial stranglehold.
      The problem started in 1956 and it has developed into what it is today.The TAMILS are still amenable to consider a reasonable viable alternative which ensures their future survival in the country where they have lived historically for thousands of years and all notions about remaining colonial left overs is a pathetic attempt to falsify history.

      This talk about TAMILS in Wellawatte hankering for a separate state or where ever they are compelled to migrate to after having been at the receiving end of numerous pogras is a dubious absurdity which carries no validity serious enough for a for a reasoned reply.

      If the country at large is to embark on a programme of advancement socially and economically for the purpose of the betterment lof all the people populalating it, the national question which Impeads that advancement has to be resolved honestly and sincerely for all time.

      If that realisation fails to dawn in the majority mindset, then it will be a case of perpetual chasing of shadows and looking out for absent demons and festering corrupt politics for the island as a whole.

      • 1

        It may be that the problem arose in 1956 with the Sinhala only act.However it was confined to the political elitist Tamils.The ordinary Tamils got involved with JRJ’s policies specifically what Lalith Athulathmudali did.
        Before the advent of lalith Athu,especially during the time of Mrs Bandaranaike, the Tamil farmer was directly involved with the production of Onions and Dry Chillies for the south. The existance was symbiotic.It Lalith A’s tyrade policies that destroyed this symbiotic relationship and deprived the Jaffna farmer of his income.

        oxford educated, so called brilliant lawyer sophisticated Lalith Athulathmudali should take responsibility for the growth of the LTTE.

    • 2


      Have read this article? Have you read as to what CM Wigneswaren said about ‘nation’? Did you pay attention to that CM’s reference to trilingual Sri lanka within nations can exist?

  • 10

    Nation is a concept, so is a nation-state in the minds of people:

    Vast majority of the world societies had a concept that the Earth was flat: Many societies also conceived that the Sun went round the Earth.

    What happened to those human concepts? They were consigned to the dustbin of history.

    Human concepts are subject to change as human perception of the world changes for the better.

    So, we need to be flexible to accommodate the aspirations of peoples instead of being stubborn with archaic definitions of this and that.

    Those who have a scientific bent in their thinking will agree with me whiles others hang on to their useless beliefs about the changing world where there beliefs obstruct them from perceiving the true reality out there.

    • 13

      Dr. Siri Gamage’s article clearly shows that he is enlightened in modern day political science vis-a-vis nations and nation states.

      Gamage glaringly exposes Dayan’s folly as perverted, ignorant or prostituted thinking.

      One has to look at the many new nations that emerged after 1948 for the Sinhala majority to wisely modify their beliefs rather than stick to the archaic, if dishonest Mahavamsa writings.

      East Timor, Kosovo, Crimea and many more new nation-states, not just nations, that emerged before our own eyes stand testimony to Dayan’s ignorance or stubbornness in his beliefs. At this rate he will never be enlightened!

      On the other hand Dayan is a midget in political science, who is not versed in modern trends and, or his perception of politics is tainted by his belief in Mahavamsa.

      Dayan, it is not a shame to humbly change one’s opinion if proved wrong as this author does with ease for even the ordinary folks like me to understand.

      In the stock market, we change our opinions at the fall of a dime simply because the goal is to make money and not to be right!

      So, Dayan, I will advise you sincerely, for the benefit of humanity to change your beliefs, as scientists do.

      To remind people who may not believe in scientific thinking, if we have a theory and it is experimentally proved incorrect, one has to accept it as the truth until it is improved/modified or otherwise altered.

      Dayan, it is not political oratory we are engaged in. Demagogues use the emotions of crowds of people to gain their own(demagogue’s) ends.

      Are you?

      • 0

        Does the “Tamil Nation” include ALL Tamil speaking people throughout the island INCLUDING those whose religion is Islam and those in upcountry tea estates?

        • 1


          Good question.

          You should aim your question at rulers of Islamic Republic of Kaathankudi.

  • 5

    Wiggy referring to Tamils as “nation” reminded me of the Mattala Airport.

    Just because you build a runway planes aren’t going to land there. Things need to have intrinsic value in order for it to gain acceptance isn’t it? Imagine a nation state and a UDI without recognition!

    One of the important criteria that determine a nation is its longivity i.e. how long has been this way? I can quite reliably tell you Tamils in the NE and the central hills are left over labour from the colonial period.

    The longevity a people is determined first and foremost by nature. If a people cannot sustain itself naturally then its only a part of something else. If Tamils need a “political solution” to determine its national status then its already failed.

    These Tamil politicians keep making these claims. i.e. “Tamils are not a minority”. WTF! The “Link language should be English”. Tamils will need to learn Sinhala to survive in Ceylon. The link language is Sinhala – not English!

    Now, in practical terms these things will never work. That is why they are called “Motherhood statements”. They just help politicians to win elections. It momentarily pumps blood into the depressed veins of Tamils suffering in low self-esteem. The right next day they become limp dicks again.

    These Gon Demala’s have wasted our collective time, drained our resources and energy over this crap. You should not give the morons more fuel to waste any more of our precious time.

    • 4

      Vibhushana, you have put it most succinctly:
      “If Tamils need a “political solution” to determine its national status then its already failed.”

      • 12

        No wonder srilanka is called a failed state.


    • 5

      Vibhushana, you are off the track. The tamil of Jaffna were there even before the Portugese arrived.

      • 6

        Upali S.Wickramasinghe,

        These mindless idiots may not know that Tamils are a resilient people and their language has thrived for several millenniums even before Sinhalese language came into existence.

        Tamil people know that from childhood that: Tamil language is our life; no wonder they keep on struggling for survival of their language, culture and land against heavy odds in the hands of the Sri Lankan state and its agents.

        Have you noticed that MOST of the Sinhalese writers never ever mention the fact that Tamils of the North-East had their separate state before the Portuguese arrived as you say?
        Still, Dayan the intellectually retarded says that Tamils are not a nation.

        You, like Shamini Serasinghe, are a few wise ones who acknowledge these facts: Even the so-called political science expert, if a midget at that, never takes that into account in his cock-eyed arguments.

      • 0

        Dear Upali,

        Yes they were there. But the problem is their claim to areas where they were not there.

        They were there NORTH of Elephant Pass.
        They were not there SOUTH of Elephant Pass.

        During the 17th century the Company was engaged in a war of attrition with the king of Kandy, who had close ties with Ceylon’s Buddhist population. There was a narrow tongue of land at Elephant Pass a fort was built to guard the border with the king’s territory. Elephants captured on Ceylon were herded past here to Jaffna to be sold in India, hence the name Elephant Pass.
        End extract

        Kind Regards,

  • 2

    Dear Mr Siri Gamage
    In order to proceed with a practical, rational discussion on the subject
    of Tamil Nation it is important that the category of population group known as “Tamils” is clearly identified.
    Can you kindly tell us when YOU use the word “Tamils” which of the following sub categories are included:

    1) Tamil speaking Hindus and Christians in the Northern Province
    2) Tamil speaking Muslims in the Nothern Province
    3) Tamil speaking Hindus and Christians in the Eastern Province
    4) Tamil speaking Muslims in the Eastern Provinc
    5) Tamil speaking Hindus and Christians in Colombo / Wellawatta
    6) Tamil speaking Muslims scattered in various pockets among Sinhalese in areas outside Nothern and Eastern provinces
    7) Tamils of recent Indian origin in up country estates.

    • 11

      Why don’t you ask Dr. DJ PhD the same question “what he meant by sinhalese”?
      -sinhala speaking low country buddhists
      -sinhala speaking kandyn buddhists
      -sinhala speaking catholics and christians
      -sinhala speaking muslims
      -sinhala speaking burgers and malays
      -sinhala speaking indians
      -sinhala speaking tamil origins along coastal areas


      • 0

        Dear Arati
        Yes, all the categories you mentioned constitute the Sinhala nation. Now would you say all the categories I mentioned belong to the “Tamil nation” or those Tamils whose religion is Islam and Tamils in up country are excluded. You may acknowledge that demographic distribution of Tamil speaking people throughout the island does not lend itself for a practicable “political solution” encompassing all or at least 80%. The problem is if a geographical allocation for a “separate state” is defined Sinhalese will (should) demand that all the “Tamil nation” should move into that.

      • 0

        like every hypocritical Tamil politician you too find it difficult to answer my question. I have been posting this question on CT and many other websites 1000 times but no one wants to take the bull by the horns. I dare say even Dr Siri Gamage who has written this long thesis on “two nations” is nervous to face this question. I will simplify the question for the benefit of you and Dr Sisi Gamage:
        “Does the “Tamil Nation” include ALL Tamil speaking people throughout the island INCLUDING those whose religion is Islam and those in upcountry tea estates?”


        • 2

          Your are trying to confuse issues. In the long run the Sinhala
          Nation will stand to benefit with a parallel Tamil Nation or in
          a Federal arrangement, which is the least the Sinhala political
          formation must decide before being concluded shortly after UNs
          Sept. sittings?

  • 5

    Really I do not understand these complicated definitions. I am a person rejected from most part of the society. Especially by the learnant community. What I simply understand,having more than half a century life experience is we either Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim all are human. We all feel pain, hugriness, thirsty need for love and affiliation equally irrespective of our varied cultural, religious, national practices. We all are born to this world to some parents, conduct a life and leave this world unexpectedly on some day, some where due to some reason that we never perceive before hand.

  • 3

    I’m reassured by the Interview Ranil gave it to Thanthi TV India and published in the Hindu ( updated version 7th Mar ). He has given a comprehensive interview. As a former red comrade decieved by all the red leaders, I accept that RANIL is not a mean political leader as portrayed by DJ et el.

    He has exposed MR ‘ s wrong doings to Mother Lanka and all her children.

    He has given elucidation on 13 th amendment and 13 plus MR promised to India. Hamlet and Soma and the like minded readers can read the interview in full and not selectively.


  • 1

    I use a very simple definition.if a social group thinks, feels and imagines they are a nation, we social scientists should not debate on that. because we have to accept and recognize that that particular social group acts as a nation does. One may not behave as a nation today, but may be tomorrow. Sri Lanka is a state with four nations living in its territory, Kandyan Tamils (may be becoming than being), Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalas. Also there are number of ethnic groups that do not behave like nations. Ex: Burghers, Colombo Chetties, Malayalis etc.

    • 7

      Sumanasiri Liyanage

      I agree that there are more than one nation exist in this country, you have ignored Veddah nation, first nation of this island.

      • 0

        its his convenience of the Buro/buruva like his bed & head.
        lift his tail; and shove the broom vroom vroom voooorm.

  • 0

    Dr Siri Gamage,
    I feel so enlightened by your definitions of ‘nation’. I just realised that me being a Sinhalese Catholic,( as opposed to Sinhalese Buddhist)I represent a new nation. By your arguments, at least we can agree that there are a hell of a lot more ‘nations’ in Sri Lanka than just the two.

    My only concern is that I don’t think you actually believe what you are saying. You state,”…Fifthly, is it possible to discard two-nation theory merely because it has ‘become a dirty word in neighbouring India’?”. Surely, by your own arguments you should have realised that Sri Lanka consists of many more nations than just two.

    Dr Siri Gamage, I hope you are not discriminating me? :)

  • 0

    I did not think that such a reasoned and scholarlystatement of Dr Siri Gamage is necessary to rebut the prejudices of a fool who is not taken seriously.

    • 1

      send the monkey guards from new delhi after him- they tare him apart; the war criminal anti_christ catholic crusader.

  • 2

    It is very unfortunate the DJ doesnot even understand basic concepts like nation. He is pathetic. He needs professional help at this stage or else he will go into a state whre no one can help him.

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